It’s finally August, that time of year when when professional football slowly reasserts itself as the dominate sport in America.
That means that more attention is shifted towards the upcoming season and thus any rehashing of the previous season appears passé to most.
Yet with that in mind, I think it’s worthwhile to take one last look back at a 2016 Atlanta Falcons season that was both impressive and disappointing wrapped into one. It
will should probably marks the final time where it might be worthwhile before all the focus becomes centered around the team’s 2017 fate.
To do so, I’ve looked over the “data dump” that Football Outsiders does every summer, posting a wealth of stats and info about the previous season in the run up to the release of their annual almanac. A lot of which outlines stats that aren’t easy to come by simply looking at box scores or even watching film regularly.
One of the issues with stats is how misleading they can be, and how easily they can be misrepresented or misinterpreted much to the chagrin of those consuming them. I’ll do my best to minimize my own biases with assessing and analyzing these stats.
A lot of what is to follow won’t be earth-shattering, particularly any of the stats and articles that discuss the success of the Falcons offense. Everybody knows that the 2016 Falcons offense was one of the best in NFL history, which requires no esoteric analysis.
With that being said, given how bloated this would be to include stats for both the offense and defense, I plan on splitting this into two parts. One focusing on Football Outsiders’ stats detailing the offense’s success and another on the defense.
Let’s start things on more promising footing by focusing on the offense in this first part, with the defensive analysis to come later in part two.
Note: A lot of this data cites Football Outsiders’ proprietary metric of Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (or DVOA). If you’re unfamiliar, here’s DVOA explained in their own words:
DVOA is a method of evaluating teams, units, or players. It takes every single play during the NFL season and compares each one to a league-average baseline based on situation. … Football has one objective — to get to the end zone — and two ways to achieve that — by gaining yards and achieving first downs. These two goals need to be balanced to determine a player’s value or a team’s performance.
Think of DVOA as a way of balancing overall effectiveness and efficiency. Okay, now let’s get started…
Stat No. 1: Adjusted Interceptions, 2016
The Gist: This stat looks at how many picks a quarterback should have thrown in 2016. Although it’s worth noting that Football Outsiders indicates this metric minimizes subjectivity in comparison to the analysis of someone like Cian Fahey.
The Falcons Take: As one could have suspected, Matt Ryan fared very well in this category. He threw seven interceptions last year, but “should have” thrown 10. That number puts Ryan among the least turnover-prone quarterbacks in the league in 2016. A stark change from him being one of the most turnover-prone passers a year ago when this metric suggested that Ryan should have thrown 20 picks instead of 16.
My own film watching suggested that there were probably at least a half dozen passes from Ryan that could have been picked that weren’t through the first month or so of last season. But I eventually stopped counting and caring by midseason.
My initial expectation was that Ryan had been “lucky” with avoiding turnovers in several early games and that luck would eventually run out in the latter half of the season, prompting the Falcons offense to lose momentum. However that never came to fruition and my focus shifted from whether or not the Falcons offense would begin to backslide to more about if the team’s defense would be able to step up in case it did.
So while my own subjective analysis would put the number of potential interceptions that Ryan had last season at more than three, discovering what that exact number was is far less important to me now.
It’s more worthwhile to notice that Ryan did a very good job avoiding those interceptions in 2016 versus what he did in 2015. Certainly some of that is owed to “luck” but how much of it, is not as interesting to me. At the end of the day through either luck or skill, Ryan’s ability to avoid costly interceptions was a big reason his and the team’s play improved so much from 2015 to 2016.
Stat No. 2: 2016 Passing Plus-Minus
The Gist: This stat basically determines how many more (or less) passes a quarterback completed over an average passer given the same situations. This is basically another formulation of “adjusted completion percentage” but with the adjustment based on depth of target.
The Falcons Take: Ryan of course fared well here, finishing second behind Drew Brees with a plus-minus of +33.1. Converting it to a rate stat, Ryan was the best in the league at 6.6 percent, meaning that his completion percentage was nearly seven points higher than the average quarterback based around depth of targets.
Again, it’s just another passing stat that Ryan shined in. At this point, I’m looking forward to discovering a stat where Ryan was much closer to average in.
This is also a fun stat for Cam Newton “haters” and also probably one of the only metrics that Jared Goff wasn’t deemed the worst quarterback in football in 2016.
Stat No. 3: 2016 Receiving Plus-Minus
The Gist: Building off the passing plus-minus, it’s looking at how many more targets a receiver caught (based around depth of target) than an average player would.
The Falcons Take: Both Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu shined here, making the Falcons one of just three teams that had two receivers in the top 20. Jones finished ninth and Sanu 17th. Miami and Washington were the other two teams by the way.
Of course this is a testament both to the receivers but also the fact that Ryan was holding up his end of the bargain, by throwing catchable passes.
I honestly did not expect Sanu to fare as well here given my perception that a large portion of his throws were shorter throws that likely skewed his catch rate higher than normal.
It’s likely that seeing so many short throws did push up his numbers somewhat as there are a few other receivers notorious for their propensity to win near the line of scrimmage that also ranked highly here. I’m looking at you Jarvis Landry, Cole Beasley, Stefon Diggs and Larry Fitzgerald! But it does mean that his high catch rate is no more fraudulent than it would be for those receivers, all of whom are good.
So for once, I can’t be too critical of Sanu.
Stat No. 4: 2016 YAC+
The Gist: Measuring how many yards after the catch that individual wide receivers, tight ends and running backs generated above the average player.
The Falcons Take: Tevin Coleman led running backs and Taylor Gabriel would have led wide receivers if he had one more target to qualify. Devonta Freeman also fared very well in this metric, ranking 14th among backs.
Ryan’s numbers of course wound up benefiting from his receivers ability to win after the catch. As he was the top-ranked passer when accounting for his receivers’ “YAC-plus” abilities. While it’s unfair to conclude that Ryan’s 2016 success was a product of his supporting cast alone, one cannot completely dismiss outright. This metric clearly shows Ryan benefited from it better than any other quarterback in the league.
This is one of those contested points that you’ll often see in online arguments. One person will use this metric to “prove” that Ryan’s success in 2016 was a product of the Falcons’ system and/or his support cast. While the person arguing on the opposite side will outright dismiss or disregard this stat simply because it doesn’t mesh with their previous assumptions
As is often the case, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Ryan definitely did benefit from his supporting cast (including his offensive coordinator), but it doesn’t necessarily mean that he didn’t also carry a fair share of the workload on his own.
Stat No. 5: Quarterbacks and Pressure, 2016
The Gist: This looks at how last year’s quarterbacks fared against pressure and without it.
The Falcons Take: This is a good metric to show where Ryan did a considerable portion of the heavy lifting when helping the Falcons offense achieve its historic success in 2016.
What will probably be surprising to many is that the Falcons actually were below average in terms of how much pressure they gave up in 2016. Ryan saw pressure on 30.3 percent of his dropbacks, which ranked 26th among the 34 quarterbacks charted.
Yet despite that, Ryan was exceptional in the face of pressure, with the seventh-highest DVOA against pressure. He also ranked No. 1 when not facing pressure, leaving most other quarterbacks in the dust in that category besides Tom Brady. Outside Ryan and Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Dak Prescott were the only other quarterbacks that managed top 10 finishes in both categories.
However this shouldn’t be earth-shattering, although it does chip away at that narrative that Ryan’s statistical leap in 2016 is owed largely to the play of his blockers up front. Ryan wasn’t kept clean all that much in 2016 (particularly in comparison to past years) and his success is probably more a testament to his own play, that of the skill position players and his offensive coordinator’s management of the offense.
But that doesn’t mean that one should be dismissive of the offensive line. While they might have been below average by league standards when preventing pressure, it doesn’t mean their performance was poor in 2016. The continuity and stability up front probably allowed them to perform better than they would have had they been forced shuffle blockers in and out of the lineup.
Essentially while the Falcons may not have had the best line in comparison to other teams around the NFL, the ability of the unit to stay relatively healthy and stable meant that it was the best possible version of the line they could have had last season.
It’ll be worth keeping an eye on the line with a 2017 season that promises a new starter at right guard and the likelihood of a higher incidence of injuries among the starting five. Will Ryan regress? And if so, will it be significant?
For your consideration, here’s where the line and Ryan ranked in terms of DVOA against pressure and without it in previous seasons:
Ryan vs. pressure, 2012-16stats according to Football Outsiders
|Overall||with Pressure||without Pressure|
What’s notable is that it illustrates that Ryan has generally been solid to good in the face of pressure over recent seasons, but 2016 signaled a marked improvement in his performance when kept clean. His 2016 was so good that it was the second-highest DVOA of a quarterback when kept clean over that five-year sample. Oddly enough that “flukey” 2013 Nick Foles season was the best.
Stat No. 6: Run Offense by Number of Backs, 2016
The Gist: This stat looks at how offenses performed based on the number of runners in the backfield, basically one or two backs.
The Falcons Take: Another stat that shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Falcons fared well, particularly when utilizing two backs. That’s a testament to the performance of departed fullback Patrick DiMarco, who was a notable Pro Bowl snub.
The Falcons ranked sixth in DVOA when utilizing two backs, but fell to 15th when utilizing just one. It’s hard to interpret that is anything other than when someone not named Patrick DiMarco was blocking for the team’s running backs, they weren’t nearly as good.
What’s also notable (if not already relatively known) is how often the Falcons utilized two runners, with 43 percent of their runs (fifth highest) having an extra back.
One can expect that percentage to likely be dialed back greatly in 2017 given DiMarco’s departure. That figure is likely to be much closer to league average, or about half as much usage in 2017. The big question is whether the Falcons will become a more efficient one-back-led rushing offense to help compensate.
Stat No. 7: 2016 Play-Action Offense
The Gist: Measures how effective offenses were using play action last season.
The Falcons Take: This is probably the most well-known stat of the bunch so far. The Falcons utilized play action more than anybody else in the league last season (27 percent of the time) and were among the best at doing so. They finished second in yards per play and fifth in DVOA when using play action, but notably finished first in both yards per play and DVOA when not using it.
That’s indicative that the team wasn’t overly reliant on play action to make their offense work and another illustration how defending the Falcons offense a season ago was basically a “pick your poison” proposition for defensive coordinators.
This article also highlights former Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s high usage of play-action throughout his career and illustrates its varying degrees of success over the years.
Stat No. 8: 2016 Offensive Personnel Analysis
The Gist: Deals mostly with how offenses fared when using “11” personnel (or three wide receiver sets) and the general trend league wide over the years to utilize that personnel grouping more.
The Falcons Take: The Falcons use “11” personnel for only about 45 percent of their plays last season. This shouldn’t be at all surprising, especially in lieu of the aforementioned stats that indicate how much the Falcons loved two running backs.
However more notably, the Falcons were one of two teams that saw their offensive efficiency get worse when they used “11” personnel.
Now to be fair, the Falcons led the league in DVOA overall in 2016, but still managed to rank ninth when utilizing “11” personnel. So the dropoff was relatively small comparatively, as it’s more a testament to how successful the Falcons offense was last year using a more “traditional” NFL offense.
Rather than reading too much into the Falcons here, more valuable to me is the league-wide trend towards “11” personnel (which I believe the Falcons will be aping in 2017) and the fact that this rather obviously illustrates the whole notion that the NFL is a “passing league.”
Generally passing is much more efficient than running regardless of formation. Plus adding an extra wide receiver on the field should make passing even more efficient versus using a running back or tight end in that same spot.
This is a pretty basic concept, but it’s worth considering the long-term implications of this at the pro level. This has already taken root at lower levels of competition, which is why the “spread” offense (an overgeneralized, but useful term) has become ubiquitous in college and high school football around the country.
FO’s data suggests that the NFL is trending in this direction, with “11” personnel now accounting for 60 percent of plays in 2016. Compare that to 2010, when it was a hair under 40 percent.
While I don’t think the “spread” will ever overrun pro football quite in the same way it has in college and high school, it certainly is having a significant effect on the game and will continue to do so in the future.
While it seems that these lower levels of competition are producing more NFL-ready quarterbacks and wide receivers than ever before, it has equally hindered offensive line play and the prevalence of “feature backs.”
Defensively, you’re seeing emphasis on speed rather than size (a testament to Dan Quinn’s team building) and seemingly an increasing value on pass rushers.
Again, these are all trends that most are aware of. But it’ll be worthwhile to continue to monitor any changes to them over the next several years. After all, another common nickname for the NFL is that it’s a “copycat league.” But what this means is that it is advantageous to be an innovator or trendsetter as you get a decided competitive edge for a short period of time as the rest of the league scrambles to catch up. And that brief edge might be exactly what’s necessary to put a Lombardi in your trophy case.
Bringing it back to the Falcons before moving on, it is interesting that the Falcons were able to find so much offensive success last year under Shanahan in spite of running what could be considered a “throwback” offense in light of league-wide trends. Essentially Shanahan has installed a system that would have been right at home in the mid-to-late 1990s as opposed to the mid-to-late 2010s. One would not necessarily suspect that given Shanahan’s relative youth and the expectation that youth tends to veer towards novelty and freshness.
But that only further illustrates why I’m skeptical whether the “spread” will be proliferated at the pro level as it has at lower levels. As the league moves in one direction, there will always be opportunities and advantages for those outliers willing to move in the opposite.
Stat No. 9: 2016 Slot vs. Wide: WRs and QBs
The Gist: This looks at how often/efficient individual wide receivers (and the quarterbacks throwing to them) were when split out wide versus deployed in the slot last year.
The Falcons Take: What probably stands out the most is how relatively efficient all three of the Falcons main wide receivers: Jones, Gabriel and Sanu were playing in the slot. Both Jones and Gabriel ranked in the top 10 in DVOA when lined up in the slot. While Sanu “only” ranked 24th league wide among receivers with at least 50 targets, he was far more efficient inside than he was outside. He ranked 82nd (out of 94) when lined up outside a season ago. Compare that to Jones (11th) and Gabriel (25th).
This is noteworthy especially in light of recent comments from Jones indicating that the Falcons might try to make Sanu and Gabriel a bit more interchangeable in 2017, with the former becoming more of a deep threat and the latter a more effective weapon closer to the line of scrimmage.
It remains to be seen if Sanu is capable of such growth, given that he’s never really been especially productive as a vertical threat throughout his career. But trying to add a new wrinkle certainly shouldn’t hurt. Yet if it doesn’t take then the Falcons should not forget where these guys shine the most.
And of course to no one’s surprise, Ryan benefited from throwing to those receivers in the slot, pacing the league with the highest DVOA on slot targets. But a testament to Ryan’s overall effectiveness last year was that he still managed to rank fourth on outside throws. He was one of three quarterbacks to rank in the top 10 in both categories.
Stat No. 10: 2016 Slot vs. Wide: RBs and TEs
The Gist: This looks at how often/efficient individual running backs and tight ends were split out wide or deployed in the slot last year.
The Falcons Take: No one should be surprised that both Freeman and Coleman were among the most used backs when it came to deploying them in the passing game outside the backfield. Shanahan loved splitting them out wide and moving them into the slot to create mismatches for them and others.
According to FO’s data, both saw less than 76 percent of their targets come when they were lined up in the backfield. Which seems pretty high until you realize that the norm for most running backs around the league is much closer to 90 percent. Only five backs (and one fullback) with at least 25 targets were moved around more than either of them.
Also noteworthy was that rookie tight end Austin Hooper ranked third in DVOA when lined up as an in-line tight end and fifth when in the slot. Although to be fair, Hooper had a relatively small sample size compared to the others on the list. But if you’re already aboard the “Hooper hype train” this year, this certainly will be a feather in your cap.
I recommend checking out the stats for yourself, not only to explore how other teams/players fared in these particular metrics but also because you yourself could look at the data and come to different conclusions.
Clearly these 10 stats show that the Falcons offense performed superbly throughout 2016 in multiple different facets. They obviously got MVP-caliber quarterback play from Matt Ryan, but also had solid performances from their running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and offensive line to varying degrees.
It all came together in a very special season that unfortunately didn’t quite end the way we all wanted it to. But that doesn’t change the fact that we were witness to one of the best offenses in NFL history and these stats only confirm it.